A walk in the desert marked a turning point for Vertigo Films as it turned its attention to television. DQ hears how the company plans to follow its initial success with historical drama Britannia and buddy cop thriller Bulletproof.
At first glance, there’s little to compare British dramas Britannia (pictured above) and Bulletproof. The first is an anarchic historical drama pitting a Roman army against unruly bands of warriors and druids, while the other is a high-octane, action-filled buddy cop thriller.
Yet both series share the same basic DNA, comprising a bold idea, passionate creators and, in Vertigo Films, a production company that wants to make series that challenge the status quo and break the mould of contemporary storytelling.
“I don’t think we would do traditional British shows,” says Vertigo co-founder James Richardson. “I look at The Crown and I think it’s a masterpiece – absolute dramatic perfection. But I don’t think we’d ever make it. I look at Broadchurch and Line of Duty; they’re brilliant, genius pieces of TV, but I don’t think we’d ever make them.
“What Bulletproof and Britannia share is a slightly rebellious quality. Bulletproof is a cop show with lots of humour and two black leads, which had never been done in Britain, bizarrely, while Britannia is a totally crazy, non-historical historical show, which again has a rebellious spirit built into it.”
Both have also been renewed for second seasons – and it’s easy to see why. Britannia debuted to 1.88 million viewers this January, making it the biggest Sky original production launch on Sky Atlantic since Fortitude in 2015, while Bulletproof became the biggest Sky1 series of the year when its first episode pulled in 1.59 million viewers in May. Both series are distributed by Sky Vision.
It’s been a long road to this point. Vertigo was established in 2002 and the film producer/distributor has backed more than 30 features, including The Football Factory, It’s All Gone Pete Tong and Streetdance 3D. But four years ago, Richardson and fellow co-founder Allan Niblo abruptly cancelled their meetings at an LA film market and drove into the Californian desert, where they picked over the bones of the declining movie business.
Having identified the value of DVD sales to the film business, they similarly recognised the evolution happening in the television industry through the emergence of platforms like Netflix and Amazon, and started discussing how to target the small screen.
“Because our success in the beginning was primarily in the DVD market, not the box office, we witnessed the snobbery of something that would have a seismic change years later,” Niblo says. “So when Netflix and Amazon came along and did pick up our films and paid a lot of money, every single filmmaker was snobby about them. But we saw that there was a massive audience there. If people are watching your material, it doesn’t matter if it’s in the cinema or on DVD. We predicted a few years ago this would all change and everybody would be clamouring to get on Netflix.”
Richardson compares the current television landscape to the Wild West. “Our greatest disadvantage is we have no idea how the TV world works, but that’s also our greatest advantage,” he says. “We’re not really interested. What we’re interested in is can we make some exciting, international, cinematic shows? We’re starting to work with some really exciting people, quality filmmakers and writers, and we don’t have any paymasters or anyone telling us what to do, which is an amazing luxury.”
Britannia came from an idea by Richardson, who then took the series to Jez Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow) and Tom Butterworth, with the brothers writing it together. Bulletproof, meanwhile, came to Vertigo from co-stars Noel Clarke and Ashley Walters. They subsequently partnered with Vertigo’s Nick Love (The Football Factory) to develop the series.
“When you’re working with someone like Jez Butterworth, you let them do what they want to do,” Richardson notes. “It’s the same with Noel and Ashley. What show do you want to make? We’ll back that and support it. I like to think we’re quite empowering. We might have ideas from the beginning but Jez, Noel and Ashley then made them their own, which we totally celebrate.”
Vertigo’s 2010 film Monsters is also getting the television treatment, with Ronan Bennett (Top Boy) leading the adaptation, which is in development at Channel 4.
“What’s crucial for us is to make it its own thing,” Richardson says, noting that the series will steer away from Gareth Edwards’ feature film about a photojournalist who must escort his employer’s daughter back to the US through an ‘infected zone’ full of creatures in Mexico. “Ronan wants to make something that’s unique in its own world, but we’re also being respectful of its origins and making sure the stuff we loved about it in terms of atmosphere and tone comes to the TV show. It’s an opportunity to explore a world we felt we only just touched on and to do something unique.”
The TV space allows Vertigo to experiment with more “tweener” ideas – their word to describe projects that sit in-between genres – which are always the most difficult to get away but often have the most interesting results. So for a show like Monsters, “we’re going to have some [monsters] and the fanboys and girls will see the show they’re excited to see,” Richardson explains. “In the same breath, we want to undercut it and do something a bit different. It’s the same with history like Britannia, and Bulletproof also played with genre. We get excited about that because it’s an area where perhaps some viewers feel they aren’t being catered to. There’s not enough things like that coming out of the UK.”
Vertigo will certainly be looking to scale further up the TV industry, with Richardson and Niblo admitting their focus going forward will remain firmly on the small screen. “Because we’ve done 35 movies, we feel we’ve done a lot of the 90-minute format, and this is a whole new world,” Richardson concludes. “None of us are feeling excited about doing a film, because we’ve got an opportunity to explore this brave new world.”
Sky1 drama Bulletproof stars Noel Clarke and Ashley Walters as Bishop and Pike, two cops who are best friends and emotionally bonded by their moral code, despite their different backgrounds.
Set in London, the series takes viewers on an action-packed ride across the city as Bishop and Pike chase down the bad guys in their own uncompromising style.
In this DQTV interview, Clarke and Walters reveal the desire to work together that led to them creating Bulletproof with Nick Love (The Football Factory) and why they wanted to change the way the police are perceived in the UK – particularly within the black community.
They also discuss how the television industry has changed for black actors and praise Sky for “putting their money where their mouth is” and backing them to make the series.
Created by Clarke, Walters and Love, Bulletproof is produced by Vertigo Films (Britannia) and distributed by Sky Vision.
As the battle for the best projects becomes ever more fierce, leading drama commissioners and producers open up about their own development processes and reveal how they work to bring new series to air.
For television drama commissioners, the development process must feel a lot like spending their working hours at the races, looking for the right horse on which to bet and willing it to cross the line in first place.
The financial power of SVoD platforms has changed the game for those picking up series for their networks, with the battle for projects now increasingly fierce as partners come together earlier in the process than ever.
Meanwhile, producers are reaping the benefits of an increasing number of buyers looking for original, brand-defining shows. But how is the development process changing at both broadcaster and producer level, and what challenges do they face in the new television landscape?
Anna Croneman, SVT’s newly installed head of drama, admits very few of the Swedish broadcaster’s scripted series are developed in-house. Instead, writers or writer-producer teams will pitch her ideas and SVT will then board a project from the start. But Croneman says her development slate has been slimmed down to ensure viable projects are singled out early on.
“Last year we cut the development slate significantly, which means we can spend more time on things we really believe are right for us,” she explains. “We lose some projects to the international players, but there is really no other broadcaster doing what we do in Sweden, in the Swedish language. But once again, getting the right talent is an even greater challenge now.”
That challenge is amplified by the competition from Netflix and HBO Nordic, which is starting to commission local original series. “I see companies trying to tie down writers by employing them, or doing first-look deals on ideas,” Croneman adds.
HBO Europe pursues projects from both single authors (such as Štěpán Hulík’s Pustina) and those that use writers rooms (Aranyelet). “In some cases we go through quite a lot of storylining processes; other developments go to first script very quickly,” explains Steve Matthews, VP and executive producer of drama development at the firm. “Sometimes we will polish a pilot through a number of drafts, sometimes we will commission a number of first drafts. It all depends. There is no set system; every project grows organically – we are proudly writer-led in our developments and do our best in each case to find the best support we can bring to the process.”
The company seeks to join projects as soon as possible, and Matthews says there are no rules about what materials it needs to consider a pitch. “We like to be involved early so that we can offer support in that crucial inception,” he says. “That’s when we can help the team understand our needs as a broadcaster and, crucially, for us to understand what the writer is trying to do or say and so support them in that process. A shared vision early in the development fosters a sense of joint ownership and collective focus on the core idea.”
When its original-programming operation was in its infancy, HBO Europe’s attention centred on adaptable formats. But Matthews says the network group wanted the same thing then as it does now – shows that feel fresh and relevant in the territories for which they are made, whatever their origins.
“The results include shows that are based on formats, like Aranyelet [Finland’s Helppo Elämä] and Umbre [Australia’s Small Time Gangster], but that push ahead into new stories that are entirely authored by our local teams,” he explains. “Furthermore, adapting formats has proven an excellent training ground. Our brilliant teams in the territories have nurtured stables of writers who have learned their craft on series like our various versions of In Treatment and are now showrunners passing on their knowledge to the next groups of talent we bring in. So we feel we have the experience and confidence to no longer rely on formats. For our new slate in Adria, for instance, we decided at the start we would only develop original ideas from local talent.”
UK broadcaster Channel 4 is known for its eclectic drama output, from topical miniseries The State and National Treasure to shows that take an alternative approach to familiar genres, like Humans (sci-fi) and No Offence (crime).
“We have regular conversations with producers and writers and have a realistic development slate,” explains head of drama Beth Willis. “We don’t want to flirt unnecessarily with projects we don’t love – it’s a waste of time for the producer and the writer. So we will be clear from the off about whether we think it’s for us. And if we do say we think it’s for us, we really mean it.”
As a commissioner, Willis says she will offer her thoughts on early drafts and throughout production, and that the increased competition for scripted projects means her team is now more conscious of the defining characteristics of a C4 drama. However, like Croneman, she notes that “the biggest competition is in securing talent for projects rather than specific projects themselves.”
“We receive hundreds of pitches a year from independent production companies,” says Rachel Nelson, director of original content at Canada’s Corus Entertainment. Her team read and review each piece and have bi-weekly meetings where they determine what might be suitable for Corus’s suite of networks, which includes Global and Showcase.
“We work mostly with producers, rather than with a writer only. We are open to ideas and will accept any creative, from scratches on a napkin to full scripts,” she says, adding that Corus’s focus now falls on projects within targeted genres. “We’ve also learned how important it can be to take risks and not be afraid of doing that when we feel strongly about specific projects. We experienced this first-hand with Mary Kills People. We received the script, read it right away and were so impressed that we moved to an immediate greenlight on this show by an unknown writer, pairing her with an extremely experienced team.”
Fellow Canadian broadcaster Bell Media – home of CTV and Space – is also open to developing projects that arrive in any form, though a producer should be attached fairly early in the process, says director of drama Tom Hastings. That said, its development process hasn’t radically changed in recent years, even as the company moves with programming shifts such as the trend for shorter serialised dramas.
“We take a ‘steady ship during stormy weather’ approach,” Hastings says. “As our channels have strong brands and identifiable audiences, we remain committed to developing drama programmes that best fit those brands and work for those specific viewers. We remain very selective about what we develop and we take our time, demanding the best of everyone, including, most especially, ourselves.”
Arguably the biggest battleground in the world of development is the race to secure IP, with producers scrambling to pick up rights to films, stage shows and, in particular, books – often before they have even been published.
Transatlantic producer Playground Entertainment is behind new adaptations of Howards End and Little Women, and has previously brought Wolf Hall, The White Queen and The White Princess to the small screen. But adaptations, like every development project, are not a “one-size-fits-all process,” says Playground UK creative director Sophie Gardiner. “Sometimes we will commission a script before going to a broadcaster – maybe because nailing the tone is crucial to the pitch and you can’t do that in a treatment – but more often we prefer to work with a partner in the initial development.
“Not only does this mean you are on their radar and they are invested in it from the get-go, but they can often be genuinely helpful. However, there’s no doubt the SVoD firms are looking for material to be pretty well developed, and more packaged [compared with what traditional broadcasters want].”
The Ink Factory burst onto the television scene with award-winning John Le Carré adaptation The Night Manager in 2016 and is following up that miniseries by adapting two more Le Carré novels – The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and The Little Drummer Girl. Both are again with Night Manager partners AMC and the BBC.
“Relationships with broadcasters are vital, and it is via those connections that we get to know each other and forge a sense of where our taste synthesises – and, from there, opportunities evolve,” explains Ink Factory head of development Emma Broughton. “Sometimes we will work on the seed of an idea and build it ground-up with a broadcaster. Some of our projects have broadcaster attachments before they have a writer or director. On other occasions, we will develop an idea ourselves to one or two shaped scripts and take those – with a series bible and, potentially, a director and cast attachments – to a broadcaster.”
Broughton says the development process has become “more innovative and collaborative,” thanks to opportunities to build stories not confined to the UK. But increasing competition means The Ink Factory must be more distinctive, original and bold in its ambitions, she adds.
“It’s a terrific challenge,” the exec continues, “from bringing passion and vision when pitching in a highly competitive situation to secure a book, or developing projects that attract the most exciting and creative on- and off-screen talent. It’s all about the excellence of the work, being collaborative and honouring authorship.”
A “fairly traditional” approach to development is employed at Komixx Entertainment, which follows the tried-and-tested method of sourcing existing IP with a built-in audience and using recognised writers and producers. Keeping the original author of the IP closely involved is also seen as an important step to stay true to the material, in an effort to remove as much risk to broadcasters as possible.
What is different about Komixx, says Andrew Cole-Bulgin, group creative officer and head of film and TV, is where the company sources its IP, using both recognised authors such as Robert Muchamore (the Cherub series of novels) and new content from non-traditional publishers, such as self-publishing community Wattpad.
“As a young-adult producer, it’s crucial to consider that Generation Z is an audience made up of digital natives, so the best content comes from within their digital roots,” Cole-Bulgin argues. “Transitioning and retaining this audience from one digital platform, like Wattpad, to another, such as Netflix, is easier and more successful than pursuing a linear broadcasting approach.”
Komixx now has a raft of projects in development simultaneously, instead of focusing on a select few. Cole-Bulgin also believes the increasing power of SVoD platforms has transformed the production landscape, providing huge opportunities for producers. “As they look to quickly expand their libraries of content, we have to adapt our development method to fit their needs,” he notes.
Feature producer Vertigo Films has built its reputation on the back of Football Factory, Monsters and Bronson but is now breaking into TV with Sky Atlantic series Britannia. The epic Roman-era drama is set to debut in the UK early in 2018. Co-founder James Richardson says the firm is regularly “idea led,” often by the talent involved. “But every show needs to be somehow off-kilter – commercial but never straight,” he adds. “And we like projects that we feel we haven’t seen before, or that are tackling a subject we have seen before in a completely different way. Britannia, for example, subverts the historical genre.”
Vertigo has also had Sky pick up Bulletproof, a crime drama starring Ashley Walters and Noel Clarke and showrun by Nick Love. “Going from film to TV has been such an exciting transition creatively and I am in awe of execs in the TV world for creating shows over such a long space of time, since we have just had to make 90-minute films for most of Vertigo’s lifetime,” Richardson adds. “The process – and why we want to make a project – is the same, but there’s just more story, much more story.”
Looking forward, Richardson believes the development process for television drama, which can already take several years, will take even longer. “Getting projects to a place where they are ready before shooting – the film model – will become the norm for many shows. It makes a big, big difference.”
Komixx’s Cole-Bulgin concludes: “With companies like Facebook launching into the broadcast market, it will be fascinating to see how producers deal with the increasing demand for shortform scripted content for the audiences who are consuming their content via mobile platforms.”